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NCAA BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT

NCAA May Call Delay of Games

Organization prepared for postponements in its showcase basketball tournaments if U.S. goes to war in Iraq, Brand says.

March 18, 2003|Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writer

Declaring, "we have to be respectful of our men and women in uniform," NCAA President Myles Brand said Monday he is prepared to postpone men's and women's basketball tournament games if war with Iraq begins this week.

Brand said the NCAA is checking the availability of arenas and hotels for the days after first- and second-round games are scheduled to be completed. That would give the officials more flexibility as they determine possible postponements.

"We don't know when [war] will start," Brand said. "On the other hand, I think we have to be very careful not to let Saddam Hussein control our lives. We have to balance those."

Brand's sentiments seem to be resonating across the sporting landscape.

NASCAR executives are considering shortening races because of climbing gasoline prices, Martha Burk says she will tone down the planned lightheartedness of her Masters protest, and Major League Baseball's opening-day game in Tokyo is iffy.

Insisting his primary consideration is the safety of athletes and fans, Brand said the NCAA has maintained contact with the Homeland Security Department and security officials as it prepares contingency plans. He declined to give details, saying information would be announced as events proceed.

"We're doing a lot of planning, but we don't know what direction it will go," Brand said.

The NCAA men's tournament first round begins Thursday, the morning after the 48-hour deadline President Bush set Monday night for Hussein to leave Iraq or face war. The women's tournament begins Saturday.

Bruce Woodbury, director of community relations at Utah and media coordinator for the men's basketball West Regional in Salt Lake City, said, "As far as I know we're going to be playing our games on Thursday and our school will be playing its game on Friday." Woodbury attended a meeting with the West Regional staff Monday, and said there was no discussion about changing game days.

Brand said postponements of other NCAA championships, such as those in men's and women's swimming and diving and men's and women's ice hockey, would also be considered. Any decisions would be made in consultation with federal authorities and security officials. Brand's office would make the final call.

"We have to arrive at a position that makes the most sense for the NCAA," he said. "But we don't want a tyrant to run our lives."

The implications of war have generated meetings among the nation's sports leaders, most of whom say their reactions hinge on uncertainties.

"All we can say at this moment is that the commissioner is in contact with Washington and he will be guided by world events," Major League Baseball spokesman Rich Levin said of the opening-day game between the Oakland A's and Seattle Mariners on March 25 in Tokyo.

That was a familiar theme.

The NBA is expected to soon increase security at arenas and for its teams should a war in Iraq begin within the next few days. It was not immediately clear if the breakout of war would force the postponement of games, however.

Locally, the Clippers play host to the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday and the Lakers face the Kings at Sacramento on Thursday.

It was status quo for both teams when they played each other Monday at Staples Center, with the customary post-Sept. 11 security present as fans, players, coaches, arena workers and reporters entered the arena.

"A lot of the security measures that other buildings may be upgrading to we've had in place since the terrorist attacks," said Michael Roth, Staples Center director of communications. "That includes the walk-through metal detectors, the size limitations on bags fans bring into the building and the X-raying of deliveries, including packages and mail. Since the last time the country's terrorist rating was raised, we've heightened measures. A lot of it is visual, but there also is a lot behind the scenes.

"It's all about making the fans feel safe. There are many other technological security measures behind the scenes that the fans are not aware of."

Added Tim Frank, the NBA's senior director of basketball communications: "I don't think we're holding to any exact protocol. For now, we're moving forward as if it were business as usual. The temperature of the American people will be a key factor."

The most pressing complications involve television coverage.

CBS, preparing a backup plan to move regularly scheduled NCAA men's basketball tournament games to cable television if war news takes precedence, is continuing discussions with ESPN. Before Brand revealed the possible delay of games, Sean McManus, CBS Sports president, said negotiations were nearing completion to switch first-round games to ESPN or ESPN2, if necessary.

An ESPN spokesman said details had yet to be worked out.

During the first two days of the tournament, ESPN2 has more room than ESPN. ESPN is committed to an NHL game Thursday at 5 p.m. and an NBA doubleheader Friday at 5 p.m.

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